The Coronavirus Genie Escapes Its Bottle

The COVID-19 virus broke out of containment this week. A week ago, you could still draw an imaginary boundary around the places affected and hope it stayed inside. Mostly it was in China. Other countries, like the US, had a handful of cases that could be traced to affected areas — foreign travelers and such. Just keep those people in quarantine and maybe everybody else would be safe.

Now, though, “community spread” has started: People have COVID-19 even though they have no traceable connection to China or any other area with a known outbreak. Two Americans have now died, and a cluster of cases in Washington state raises suspicion that the virus has been spreading undetected for weeks. The virus is out there now, and before long you will have to assume that anybody might have it.

That’s bad, but not necessarily apocalyptic. This first-person account in the Washington Post demonstrates that catching COVID-19 isn’t always dire.

My chest feels tight, and I have coughing spells. If I were at home with similar symptoms, I probably would have gone to work as usual. …

During the first few days, the hospital staff hooked me up to an IV, mostly as a precaution, and used it to administer magnesium and potassium, just to make sure I had plenty of vitamins. Other than that, my treatment has consisted of what felt like gallons and gallons of Gatorade — and, when my fever rose just above 100 degrees, some ibuprofen. … After 10 days, I moved out of biocontainment and into the same facility as Jeri. [his wife, who had been exposed but tested negative] … As of my most recent test, on Thursday, I am still testing positive for the virus. But by now, I don’t require much medical care. The nurses check my temperature twice a day and draw my blood, because I’ve agreed to participate in a clinical study to try to find a treatment for coronavirus. If I test negative three days in a row, then I get to leave.

The low impact the virus has on many people is one reason it spreads so widely. For comparison, if you caught Ebola you’d likely get very sick and maybe die before you had a chance to infect many other people. With COVID-19, you might think you can go to work “as usual”.

But even if any particular case of the infection is likely to be mild, it’s a mistake to write the whole thing off, as Rush Limbaugh did when he said “The coronavirus is the common cold, folks.” (Turn that statement around — the common cold is a coronavirus — and it becomes true: There are many types of coronavirus, some of which cause a common cold.)

A 2% fatality rate (the estimate I keep hearing, concentrated among the elderly and those previously in poor health) may not sound scary, but it turns into horrifying numbers when enough people get infected. If all the world’s 7.5 billion people got infected, 2% fatality would lead to 150 million deaths. In the US alone, 7 million deaths. Universal infection is probably not going to happen, but those numbers illuminate what’s at stake.

NPR and Vox have everybody-stay-calm articles about planning for a major outbreak, and what to do if you think you’re infected.

For most Americans, social and economic consequences of the virus are likely to hit harder than the disease itself. You and your loved ones may stay perfectly healthy, or at worst spend a week or so hindered by fever and malaise. But you might still face considerable challenges and disruptions. Japan, for example, has cancelled school for the next month. Various countries have cancelled sporting events, and this summer’s Tokyo Olympics are in doubt. Any plans you have that involve large crowds may have to be changed.

The Dow Jones average dropped 12% last week. That may seem a trifle extreme, until you factor in that growth was already slowing and the world economy is due for a recession soon anyway. The worrisome thing about an economic slowdown now is that there isn’t much ammunition for fighting it: Interest rates are already near record lows, and the US budget deficit was already projected at $1 trillion, thanks to Trump’s tax cut.

Now we start to get into the politics of the contagion. Any infectious disease reminds us of something we tend to forget: We’re all in this together. You may receive marvelous health care, but you’re still only as safe as the janitor who cleans your office or the waitress who brings your french fries. If they live paycheck to paycheck and don’t get paid time off, they’ll be coming in to work when they’re sick. If they can’t afford to get tested or treated, they’ll probably try to ignore their symptoms as long as they can.

When someone has flu-like symptoms, you want them to to seek medical care,” said Sabrina Corlette, a Georgetown University professor and co-director of the Center on Health Insurance Reforms. “If they have one of these junk plans and they know they might be on the hook for more than they can afford to seek that care, a lot of them just won’t, and that is a public health concern.” …

Azcue [who got tested for his symptoms and didn’t have COVID-19] said his experience underscores how the costs of healthcare in the U.S. could interfere with preventing public health crises. “How can they expect normal citizens to contribute to eliminating the potential risk of person-to-person spread if hospitals are waiting to charge us $3,270 for a simple blood test and a nasal swab?” he said.

ObamaCare got rid of junk health insurance for a while, but the Trump administration brought it back. COVID-19 — which is probably not going to be the last or even deadliest plague of this era — reminds us why we need to achieve the goal of universal health care.

That’s one of many ways this administration has made us less safe and more vulnerable to an epidemic. For example, the pandemic response team inside the National Security Council was disbanded when John Bolton reorganized the NSC in May. Its leader left the government and was not replaced.

Trump has tried to cut funding for the Center for Disease Control in each of his budgets, but Congress keeps putting the money back. So things could be worse, but only because Trump didn’t get his way.

Ever since it became clear that the Trump regime didn’t care what was true or not true — either about important things like climate change or trivial things like the attendance at Trump’s inauguration — I’ve been hearing people ask some version of “What’s going to happen when we have an actual crisis?”

If you were in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, you’ve already seen the answer to that question: Thousands of people died while Trump was congratulating himself on how well he was handling things.

So now it looks likely that the US mainland will face a public health emergency. In such situations, rumors run wild and people have a tendency to panic. They both overreact and underreact, doing ridiculous things to try to stay safe while ignoring practices that might actually help. Government has an important role to play, both in organizing treatment and in giving the public reliable information.

Wouldn’t it be great to have a government that could fulfill that role? One that we could trust to tell us what was actually happening and what we should or shouldn’t be doing?

Trump himself is utterly hopeless in that regard. Here’s what he’s said so far about the virus.

Reed Galen writes:

For President Donald Trump, the coronavirus represents a personal threat: to his brand, to the economy he claims to be growing, and to his self-professed understanding of how society works. But unlike most of the people in his administration, the coronavirus does not listen, is not scared of mean tweets and can spread regardless of the information the president chooses to share or to diminish.

Trump’s whole career has been based on bullying and marketing, but neither talent helps him here. He’s good at intimidating or conning people into doing things that work to his advantage (and usually to their disadvantage). But he’s never shown any talent for dealing with the physical world, where things are either real or not, and events happen or don’t without regard to what anybody says or thinks.

Trump’s leadership (“new hoax”) has signaled the rest of the right-wing media to run wild with conspiracy theories. Don Jr. claimed Democrats

seemingly hope that it comes here and kills millions of people so that they could end Donald Trump’s streak of winning

Conservative Treehouse has made much of the fact that Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, who warned the country to “prepare for the expectation that this could be bad” is none other than Rod Rosenstein’s sister! How much more evidence of a sinister conspiracy do you need?

There is a strong argument to be made that various resistance government officials like Dr. Messonnier, in alignment with democrat resistance politicians, are attempting to weaponize fear and talking-points about the coronavirus in order to inflict maximum damage upon the Trump administration; regardless of both psychological and actual economic impact to the public.

And conservative radio host Wayne Dupree drew the obvious conclusion:

Looks like this is yet another instance of D.C. swamp creatures using any opportunity to undermine President Trump.

It’s all about Trump. It’s not about those 3,000 people worldwide who have died. It’s about Trump.

OK, Trump may be hopeless at recognizing reality and dealing with it, but he can delegate responsibility to more competent, trustworthy people, right? That also seems unlikely. His top priority is always his own ego. He needs to be 100% right at all times, and he hates it when somebody in his government implies that he’s made a mistake. (Sharpiegate was an almost comical example of how far he’ll go to maintain the claim that he’s right.)

Vice President Pence has been put in charge of the government’s COVID-19 efforts. His task force is a mixture of political hacks and people with genuine public-health knowledge. It’s not clear yet which are the decision-makers and which are there for political window-dressing. It could go either way.

Pence quickly moved to control messaging.

The vice president’s move to control the messaging about coronavirus appeared to be aimed at preventing the kind of conflicting statements that have plagued the administration’s response.

The latest instance occurred Thursday evening, when the president said that the virus could get worse or better in the days and weeks ahead, but that nobody knows, contradicting Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, one of the country’s leading experts on viruses and the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease.

At the meeting with Mr. Pence on Thursday, Dr. Fauci described the seriousness of the public health threat facing Americans, saying that “this virus has adapted extremely well to human species” and noting that it appeared to have a higher mortality rate than influenza.

“We are dealing with a serious virus,” Dr. Fauci said.

Dr. Fauci has told associates that the White House had instructed him not to say anything else without clearance.

It’s hard to consider Pence a trustworthy figure here. He has a history of giving his moral and religious convictions priority over public health. Plus, the presence of Treasury Secretary Steve Mnunchin and economic advisor Larry Kudlow on the task force indicates the major focus of Trump’s concern: the stock market and the economy. The center of Trump’s re-election case is that stocks are at record highs and unemployment at record lows. If the public stops believing those things — say, because they stop being true — Trump might lose in November. That — and not the possibility of thousands and thousands of deaths — is the problem that grabs his attention.

Finally, it would be nice to believe that in a life-and-death situation, decisions would be made for the public good, without trying to leverage public angst to advance the regime’s political hobby-horse issues. Well, guess again. Saturday, Trump announced that he was very strongly considering closing the southern border.

There’s really no reason to do that. Mexico so far has fewer COVID-19 cases than we do, and fewer than Canada. (It would make more sense for Mexico to close its border with us.) But Trump always wants to close the southern border, so why not use the virus as an excuse?

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  • Creigh Gordon  On March 2, 2020 at 10:43 am

    The trouble with a Mnuchin/Kudlow economic response to an economic slowdown due to the coronavirus is that throwing money at a production capability problem might result in inflation but would not solve the underlying capability constraint. And throwing money is the only tool that Mnuchin and Kudlow have. Incidentally, the ability to throw money is not constrained by any condition of deficit, debt or interest if you have (as the Government does) a printing press.

    • Creigh Gordon  On March 2, 2020 at 12:11 pm

      In a typical recession, people quit spending money because they don’t have any money. The Government can throw money at that problem. In this case, people are quitting spending money because they can’t go to work, are afraid to leave their houses. Throwing money won’t change that.

  • Guest  On March 2, 2020 at 11:08 am

    “We’re all in this together…reminds us why we need to achieve the goal of universal health care.”

    Can’t say I expected this take from a guy actively rooting against Sanders, Doug, but I’ll take it. Just want to underline that Trump restoring “junk” health insurance isn’t the main culprit, it just made a bad situation worse. Many working class people who live paycheck to paycheck with “normal” employer-provided health insurance have deductibles that run into the hundreds or thousands of dollars. These people are incentivized to 1) skip the doctors and 2) come into work regardless of sickness, even under an Obamacare system fully restored to its former glory. Gong backwards to that system, or simply tweaking it around the edges, ain’t gonna cut it.

    • George Washington, Jr.  On March 2, 2020 at 12:12 pm

      Do any of the candidates oppose universal health coverage? They just have different ways to achieve it. A single-payer system is one of them, but it’s not the only way.

      • Guest  On March 2, 2020 at 2:37 pm

        That’s a fair question, George, and one that unravels if you look into it. Consider Obama. He didn’t oppose universal health coverage either, but here we are with millions uninsured and millions more under-insured in an system that incentivizes working class folks skipping the doctor because the price tag on care is too dear, even with insurance. Two things come to mind. One, we can get everyone under private insurance and claim “everyone is covered!” but still have the underlying dynamic of the under-insured, of people opting out of care because of the deductible and other hidden costs. Not all universal coverages are equal or just. And two, just because a candidate doesn’t say they oppose universal health coverage doesn’t mean they will fight for it in office. A better indicator than campaign promises would be campaign donations, and Biden, Warren, and Klobuchar all took in bundles of cash from big insurance and pharma companies. As such, they have at least some incentive to serve them rather than the people (as Obama did before them) and thus keep some level of immiseration in the system.

  • painedumonde  On March 3, 2020 at 11:04 am

    Now the sociopathy of the Conservative Movement is manifest. Whatever you may have defined as conservative in the past doesn’t matter, the past is gone. Today’s conservativism is sick, in the mental sense. And pointing out that “it’s the prez, not the movement,” will just illustrate my point further. Jettison the Vulgarian, jettison the Baggers, jettison McConnell, form a new party, do something other than what the Conservative Movement does daily now. Cleek’s Law demands it.

    Also, wash frequently, keep your hands away from your face, stay home if you’re sick, and if you engage EMS, be truthful with the dispatcher about signs/symptoms so the first responders can stay on the job. We are all definitely in this together and well Kubrick had the best scene about this kind of thing…


  • By Best Courses | The Weekly Sift on March 2, 2020 at 12:56 pm

    […] week’s featured posts are “The Coronavirus Genie Escapes Its Bottle“, “Does Anybody Know Who’s Electable?“, and “I’m Voting for […]

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